Dereham Mayor, Hilary Bushell and Northgate High School have forged a fantastic partnership and relationship over the last few months. You can read about the Mayor’s thoughts on her involvement with events at Northgate and the involvement of Northgate students in her events in an upcoming blog.

Tuesday 13th March saw two events take place. The first was in the morning, where the Mayor took part in a blindfold challenge, to navigate her way around Dereham with the use of a sighted guide or a long cane. This was organised by Guide Dogs for the blind. The walk was to raise the awareness of what it is like to be blind and with a disability, walking in the town. The Mayor actually wore a ‘mindfold’, a blindfold which allowed her to keep her eyes open, however she could not see anything. It also meant that her other senses were heightened. It proved challenging with many hazards to negotiate. She was joined by visually impaired and blind members of the community, some of whom had guide dogs. Two guide dogs in particular stood out, Ellis who was retired and 9 years old and 19 month old Lloyd who was about to qualify. Northgate students David and Kayla joined the Mayor for this walk about town and started to get a feel for the obstacles that those who are blind or partially sighted have to face on a daily basis. However, it’s not just the visually impaired that may struggle with access around the town centre, those in wheelchairs, on mobility scooters or parents with pushchairs may also encounter difficulties. You can read about the Mayor’s experience in the Dereham Times article here and see the ‘That’s Norfolk TV’ feature here. More about the guide dogs a bit later.

In the evening, 10 School Council members joined Mr MacDonald and Miss Theobald at the Dereham Town Council meeting. The Mayor had invited us to experience what happens in a Town Council meeting but also for the Town Clerk, Mr Tony Needham, to give a short talk about how the council is made up and what they do. In the same way that Northgate has Team Councils (Rewards, Social and Environment) which feed into the School Council, the Town Council have committees such as Finance and Governance, Buildings and monuments, Social and welfare and Heritage. These committees meet to discuss items and put recommendations together which then go to the full Town Council meetings. Where certain agenda items need voting on, each Councillor has a vote, however the Mayor, as chairman of the Council, has the casting vote in the event of a split vote (think Len Goodman as head judge on Strictly!). This rarely happens and if it does, quite often the matters are taken back to the committees to discuss further. Surprisingly though, as Councillors they are not able to make decisions on their own, it is only by coming together as a body that decisions can be made. In fact, the only person who can make decisions without consultation is the Town Clerk, Mr Tony Needham. A lot of his role relates to health and safety matters. He deals with day to day proceedings such as when trees went over in the gales, getting people out to sort those, repairs to toilets, parks, the new cemetery. He is also able to spend up to £2000 in special cases without having to consult people eg if toilets are damaged or quick repairs need to be made or items he deems necessary etc. Jimmy asked if the Mayor had any additional power. It appears that really it is just this casting vote. She is not able to make decisions on her own, but she does act as chairman of the council and is on different committees. She is the main face of the Town Council and as we’ve seen recently, has been involved in lots of different events, receiving some great publicity in the press. She is on hand to discuss matters further with the Town Clerk if necessary.

There are lots of different topics the Town Council discuss such as planning applications, new play areas, housing developments and road usage and quite a big issue more recently, the new cemetery in Norwich Street. They have a yearly budget and a 5 year rolling budget. They collect most of their money through Council taxes, asking Breckland District Council to collect this on their behalf.

Our School Council members had some great questions for Mr Needham. Hannah asked how they prioritise what the council acts on. Mr Needham mention that this often depends on if deadlines need to be met, with it proposes a health and safety concern etc and often things seem to prioritise themselves. After Mr Needham finished his talk it was time for a few students to go to the planning meeting with Mr MacDonald. This is where plans for extensions to houses and other buildings can be discussions and any objections heard.

7.30pm came along and it was time for the full Town Council meeting to take place. The Mayor and Town Clerk sat at the head of the table, they were joined in the horse shoe by Councillors, Cliff Jordan, Phillip Dugan, Kate Millbank, Linda Monument and Ann Bowyer, Councillor William Richmond was also present to highlight a highways meeting will be taking place with Ben Rayner this week (we have previously met both in a meeting regarding Quebec Road).

Representatives from Guide Dogs for the Blind gave a short talk about the event from the morning. The charity aims to help partially sighted and blind people get out and about with an appropriate aid eg sighted guide, long cane or guide dog. Training a guide dog in particular takes 2 years and costs about £60 000. They aim to break down barriers within towns, looking for hazards eg seating and street furniture without barriers, poorly placed signage, cars parking on pavements etc and campaign to ensure the external environment is as free of hazards as possible. They proposed to the Town Council that more crossings were controlled crossings and that more tactile paving be laid in the town, allowing those who are blind or partially sighted to be aware of appropriate places to cross roads.

There were lots of issues to be discussed from the committee meetings however unfortunately we were not able to stay to the end of the meeting. We hope our students gained a real insight into the running of a Town Council, what they do and how meetings run. It really was a unique opportunity which they really engaged with. Jimmy Cockburn, Year 8, commented, ‘It was really interesting and insightful, giving us an idea as to what goes on at the Town Council. I was surprised at the detail they went into with some of the recommendations such as the cost of reserving burial plots or scattering ashes at the new cemetery. Also, the fact that they have the separate committees just like our Team Councils.’

We wish to thank the Mayor for giving us the opportunity to attend the meeting and Tony Needham for his informative talk.

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